Chron­i­cling (failed) ideas of the Amer­i­can left over the cen­turies

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Daniel Flynn’s latest ex­am­i­na­tion of the po­lit­i­cal left and its pec­ca­dil­loes is a chronol­ogy of the left’s ideas and ef­forts in Amer­ica, from Robert Owen’s failed New Har­mony com­mu­nity in the 1820s through the cur­rent race for the Demo­cratic Party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, a bat­tle joined by two pedi­greed left­ists.

This is Mr. Flynn’s third trip through the left’s mares-nest of dys­func­tional ideas. His 2002 “Why the Left Hates Amer­ica” and his 2004 “In­tel­lec­tual Mo­rons” pick through left ide­ol­ogy and some of the breath­tak­ing in­tel­lec­tual hair­balls it has coughed up. He de­scribes how oth­er­wise smart peo­ple, in the grip of ide­ol­ogy, fall for dumb ideas.

How else ex­plain delu­sions such as: The United States is an im­pe­rial men­ace to the world and some­how or­ches­trated the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks for its own dark pur­poses, CO2 threat­ens the very ex­is­tence of the world, 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is ho­mo­sex­ual, the world’s re­sources will soon be all gone, men and women are es­sen­tially the same, hu­mans have ru­ined the world for po­lar bears and earth­worms, etc.

Th­ese ideas aren’t shouted by drug-ad­dled peo­ple in tat­tered clothes on street cor­ners, but are pro­moted by pro­fes­sors at pricey univer­si­ties, by cler­gyper­sons, by re­porters and com­men­ta­tors with toney publi­ca­tions, and by oth­ers in the cog­ni­tive elites with the IQs to know bet­ter.

In “His­tory” Mr. Flynn dis­tills the ideas of the left in Amer­ica and shows the var­i­ous at­tempts to put them into ac­tion in a straight chronol­ogy from the repub­lic’s early days to now. Through this approach read­ers see the vari­a­tions, and more im­por­tantly the com­mon­al­i­ties, of left­ist thought and ac­tion. He de­scribes the var­i­ous utopian so­cial­ist com­mu­ni­ties of the 19th cen­tury, as well as the later in­car­na­tions of left­ism: Pop­ulism, pro­gres­sivism, so­cial­ism, com­mu­nism, lib­er­al­ism. He com­pares the pre-WWII Old Left, which was mostly about eco­nomics, with the post-war New Left, which is as at least as much about cul­ture as about eco­nomics.

Mr. Flynn chron­i­cles the great leaps for­ward of left­ist gov­ern­ment that ac­com­pa­nied WWI, the Great De­pres­sion and WWII, and LBJ’s Great So­ci­ety along with the revo­lu­tion of ideas in the Six­ties. There are walk-ons by largely apo­lit­i­cal be­hav­ioral left­ists, such as hip­pies and var­i­ous other dropouts and burnouts, who just wanted, like, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, man.

The com­bi­na­tions and per­mu­ta­tions of left­ism in Amer­ica vary, as do the tem­per­a­ments of the peo­ple striv­ing to im­ple­ment th­ese ideas. The play­ers range from gen­tle 19th cen­tury so­cial­ists to 20th cen­tury com­mu­nist thugs, for whom mur­der is a le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal tac­tic. We find naive and the­ory-be­sot­ted do-good­ers shar­ing some of the same ide­o­log­i­cal space with rav­ing lu­natics. And we see op­por­tunis­tic politi­cians ex­ploit­ing both.

Vari­a­tions aside, we can see in the pro­pos­als of early 19th cen­tury re­former Robert Owen — elim­i­na­tion of: Per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, the nu­clear fam­ily, private prop­erty, re­li­gion, and mar­riage — a core of ideas and at­ti­tudes that we can fol­low in a more or less straight line from the ear­li­est days of the repub­lic through con­tem­po­rary left or­tho­doxy.

“The core prin­ci­pal of so­cial­ism, as un­der­stood by the Owen­ites who coined the term, was the trans­fer of re­spon­si­bil­ity from the in­di­vid­ual to the so­cial. Since so­ci­ety, not its in­di­vid­ual com­po­nents, is re­spon­si­ble, it is so­ci­ety that should be pun­ished or re­warded, blamed or cred­ited.” Sound familiar? Re­cur­ring themes in left think­ing and sen­si­bil­i­ties in­clude utopi­anism, the de­sire to per­fect a rowdy and un­per­fect world, and the hubris to think it can be done. Left­ists are quick to re­ject man’s ac­cu­mu­lated wis­dom as re­flected in tra­di­tion (which left­ist like to call “the dead hand of the past”) in fa­vor of the latest the­o­ries cooked up in univer­si­ties and other un­re­li­able lab­o­ra­to­ries. God is out, re­placed by the new priest­hood of sec­u­lar in­tel­lec­tu­als who prom­ise to de­liver heaven this side of the grave.

Of course, his­tory, which left­ists ig­nore in or­der to con­tinue be­liev­ing their the­o­ries, demon­strates that where left­ist schemes have been im­ple­mented they haven’t de­liv­ered heaven. What they’ve de­liv­ered is mis­ery, poverty, tyranny, and death (You could look it up — see the Soviet Union and East­ern Europe un­der same, var­i­ous peo­ple’s re­publics, Cam­bo­dia un­der Pol Pot, et al). The cen­tral ideas of the left are old ones, and they’ve failed over and over again.

In the United States, where we’ve not suf­fered the kind of full-bore left­ist regimes that have ex­isted else­where, the re­sults have been less calami­tous. But Mr. Flynn is con­vinc­ing in ar­gu­ing that the left­ism of the New Deal and its smoth­er­ing “ex­pert” com­mis­sars made the Great De­pres­sion deeper and made it last longer than it oth­er­wise would have. And he chron­i­cles how adopt­ing the left’s approach to crime and pun­ish­ment be­gin­ning in the six­ties led to the big­gest crime wave in the na­tion’s his­tory.

Left­ist move­ments have ever been long on in­tel­lec­tu­als and leisure-class idlers, but short on farm­ers and me­chan­ics, which is largely why they fail, ev­ery­one be­ing too busy talk­ing when the crops need to be tended or the wag­ons need to be fixed. Karl Marx, an icon of the left who pro­moted him­self and his the­o­ries as sav­iors of the work­ing man, was never in a mill or a mine in his life.

Marx, and count­less chil­dren of priv­i­lege who’ve at­tempted to pump mean­ing into oth­er­wise point­less lives by in­volv­ing them­selves in var­i­ous schemes to im­prove the work­ing classes, never did a day’s work in their lives. This ex­plains why real work­ers, whose lives are tied to re­al­ity as those of their al­leged bene­fac­tors hardly ever are, have rarely been en­thu­si­as­tic about left­ist schemes not re­lated to im­prov­ing work­ing con­di­tions. Airy no­tions about im­prov­ing the lot of Man, or ex­otic sex­ual prac­tices, have never got­ten much trac­tion here.

“His­tory of the Amer­i­can Left” is ex­haus­tively-re­searched, thor­oughly-de­tailed and clearly-writ­ten. Read­ers will gain an un­der­stand­ing of the core dif­fer­ences be­tween the var­i­ous left­ist ap­proaches to life and gov­er­nance, which stand in stark con­trast to those of the con­ser­va­tive side, which are based less on the­ory than on tra­di­tion and rely more on per­sonal ini­tia­tive than on gov­ern­ment mi­cro-man­age­ment.

Larry Thorn­berry is a writer liv­ing in Tampa.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.